Thursday, May 24, 2007

First You Tube Elections:
Online Political Coverage

By Jose de Wit
FIU Student Journalist

The first YouTube election? Well, not so much.

Three panelists at this morning's breakout session evaluated the influence of YouTube and other video-sharing sites on political coverage. Their conclusion: It's important, it's affecting how we cover politics, true, but it's not about to replace or completely change political coverage as we know it.

Their appraisal of YouTube itself as a player in campaign politics varied.

Chris Cillizza, author of's political column "The Fix," described how online video sharing is changing the dynamics of campaign politics, making them more fast-paced and aggressive. Video sharing allows candidates to seize on their opponents' mistakes immediately by capturing them on video and quickly disseminating them over the Internet.

He pointed to the campaign last fall that brought down former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana. When a video appeared on YouTube of Burns dozing off during a hearing, "it created a narrative about Conrad Burns - that he's out of touch," said Cillizzo. Burns ended up losing the 2006 election to Jon Tester, a Democrat, by a 25-point margin.

Such video posting activity, Cillizzo said, can make covering political races more challenging for journalists.

"They're now treating every public occasion, often even private occasions, as a public appearance," he said. "Politicians are more guarded. It's harder to get a candid moment, the real deal, the genuine article. It's harder to see what these people are like in a genuine way."

Lauren Vicary, political editor for, was cautious about YouTube's role in political coverage.

"People only look at politics on YouTube when it intersects with entertainment," she said.

Candidates put plenty of serious clips about policy on YouTube, Vicary said, but few people really watch them. She's tested this herself, asking researchers at MSNBC to find serious political clips on YouTube that got many hits. They found none.

YouTube aside, the Internet is allowing media providers to offer richer political coverage.

"The real challenge for the media is that there's so much video, so many words, so much commentary from bloggers. It can be overwhelming. Our job is to organize it for the readers," said Lee Horowitz of USA Today.

He listed just a few ways his company is using the Internet to cover politics. One is blogging. USA Today's On Politics blog is among the three most popular on the company's site, Horowitz said, ranking behind t wo direc tly rela ted to entertainment.

USA TODAY's political blog
The news, the people, the road to election day.

Horowitz also mentioned USA Today's partnership with the Web site and publication Politico, which allows his company to draw from a pool of resources that includes journalists from many mainstream publications. The partnership has allowed USA Today to deepen its political coverage and better organize it.

Cillizza said the Internet allows media companies to offer more specialized political coverage than they can offer on paper, and that specialized coverage draws a much more dedicated audience, which leads more to participation and interaction.

"Enough people are interested in campaign politics at a granular level that they'll build a community around it," he said.

While Cillizzo and Horowitz showed that the Internet provides new ways to cover politics, Vicary pointed out that online is not the be-all and end-all of political coverage, at least not yet.

"Since '96, people have been saying, 'This is the big watershed moment of the Internet and politics' - but it isn't," she said. "People are waiting for this big evolutionary leap, but it's really more like fish crawling out of the water."

She stresses that while it's important to keep up with advances in technology and take advantage of new kinds of coverage it allows, it's also important not to get further ahead technologically than one's core audience.

"We already suffer from the whole Beltway phenomenon, and we're covering politics, which makes us more insulated," she said.

The percentage of people who are politically savvy and tech geeks is very small, Vicary said. Getting too wrapped up in new technologies can shut a media provider off from all but a small section of its audience.

Proof of this, she said, is that politicians are still spending most of their money on traditional media campaigns, especially television. They're not investing too much time or energy in digital campaigns "because it's not successful, time-tested, proven. But the phone calls work, the community works."

Politicians who have used the Internet successfully in their campaigns have stuck to simple ideas accessible to most people. Hillary Clinton inviting supporters to upload and vote for her campaign theme song is a good example, Vicary said.

“I can explain it to you in under ten seconds,” she said.

A bad example is Mark Warner’s complicated campaign using avatars on Second Life, which Vicary said would take at least five minutes to explain. One was complicated, the other simple. Warner has dropped off the radar; Clinton is running strong.